Veteran musicians, from Jorma Kaukonen, Corin Tucker, Allen Toussaint, Hubert Sumlin, Brian Wilson and Mike Watt, dispense career advice – and a helluva lot more.
BY JASON GROSS
We continue our wide-ranging inquisition – please go here to read Part 1. An edited version of this also appears in the current print edition, issue number 12, of BLURT. And this fall, in issue 13 and online, we’ll have our next installment, featuring the likes of Holger Czukay, Amon Tobin, John Hiatt, Bernie Worrell, Georgia Hubley of Yo La Tengo, Ian MacKaye, Jon Langford, Bert Jansch, and others.
ROBERT SCHNEIDER (The Apples in Stereo)
Like anything you do in life, whether it’s music or a job or whatever you do, you wanna do something that when you’re old and look back on this and say ‘yeah, we did that, my friends and I!’ And you wanna do something that you feel good about. Strive to do something that’s meaningful and special to you and to your friends and your local scene, your age group and your world. Try to do something that involves your friends and the people that you have around you, as opposed to going and seeking out the business or contacts. Do things with the people that you know, who share your influences and your life. Do things with the people that you like and that you love. Try to challenge and stimulate each other and… compete (laughs) in a creative way. That’s the sort of environment that great music comes out of.
As far as how to make it in the music industry goes, it has to more to do with things like luck, charisma, looks, savvy, people skills, that sort of thing than one would like to think. But it doesn’t have EVERYTHING to do with that. The mainstream world requires the most generic factors to all be in place to speak to the largest number of people. You can have certain factors and not others- maybe you have great charisma, not great looks. But you sort of have a balance of things to make it, so to speak. But that world isn’t the world that you want to make art towards. You can’t control your looks or your luck (laughs), things like that. These are things that are inborn traits. You can’t really expect to get too far by focusing much on them. You want to do something that’s great. You want to do something that stands out.
I would say, chose obscure heroes. Don’t follow the faces that are on the magazine or on TV. Don’t follow the names that are on everybody’s lips. Chose heroes that are outside of the norm or that are, at least in your area, are not at the top of the pile. By the time you’ve heard of these people who have had their trajectory to get to where they are, the thing that they’re doing well, by the time it reaches the mainstream, it’s not played out exactly, but it’s approaching its peak of potential (how great this thing can be). You wanna chose special heroes who are different. Take Tesla over Edison. Take Brian Wilson over… there’s so many great people from that time, it’s hard to think of who to compare him negatively! So just take Brian Wilson!
He was my musical hero, especially when I was younger. I would argue the Beach Boys over the Beatles. The Beatles were the big influence on pop and psychedelia but the Beach Boys are the best. This is always my argument. I’m not saying that it’s true. I’m not sure that I agree. But the point is that I had an obscure hero. Brian Wilson was the leader of a top 40 band in his generation. In my generation, they were just old-fashioned, stripe-wearing…. They were tame and passé seeming. But they weren’t! In fact, they were the most vital, strange pop band that came out of their time. There was something to be explored there.
So, listen to music deeply. Don’t listen to what’s on the surface. Don’t listen to what’s easily available. If you like something, you’re young so you’ve only heard of the Doors or something, you haven’t heard a lot of psychedelic music, then dig deeper to find out about the thing you’re in to… what they were listening to and what scene they came out of. Then dig deeper- see what they were reading or see what kind of art they were into or the kinds of films that happened at that time. Or if you’re into modern music, maybe you start out by being into heavy metal or something, but you dig deeper. You read reviews and stuff and you keep up with other young bands. Not keeping up with the main scene but you sort of keep up with the underground scene.
So, listening deeply, having obscure heroes, that kind of stuff is the sort of thing I would say.
Oh, the other thing is, cultivate primitive skills. Don’t focus too much on having fancy musicianship or fancy recording skills or anything like that. Don’t focus too much on polish, ’cause polish comes with time anyway. You can’t unpolish something that’s been overly polished.
I have a mild theory actually that pre-recorded music in the time before music was ever recorded, that musical performances had a much wilder and stranger quality than anything we could imagine. And that as soon as musicians could start hearing themselves and hear what they had just played, they could correct it. And then they could listen to the recordings of the previous generation and get better than that and better than that until the current state of incredibly tight musicianship and recording. I don’t just mean now but at any given time. It’s going to be tighter than it was before. 20 years from now, it’ll be like ‘woah, 2011… stuff was so raw then!’ (laughs) But the point is that there’s this rawness and this lack of skill that’s lost from music that was probably really special back when it existed. So I would say, cultivate primitive skills! (laughs)
What’s ‘good’ is what sounds like other stuff and is acceptable and you might be able to pass off as being professional. That’s good, sure. But what’s GREAT is completely disconnected from what’s professional. It does not matter! It does not matter if the painting looks realistic. You take some property of what is widely accepted to be good and you tear something apart from that and you do something that’s almost ugly but your goal is to do something meaningful and special and means something to the people you know and to other people like you, like your friends, as opposed to the people on the larger scale that you can’t know. I guess that’s really the best thing that you could really try to do with making music. It’s the sort of thing that will always keep you making fresh music. If you’re a popular recording artist and you’re trying to relate to what people think you should be like or to other popular artists, you’re writing for this alien audience that you don’t really understand. You should really be writing for your neighbor or for your girlfriend or the individual people right around you that you hope to impress.
I actually would probably say all of that long, stream of winding, slightly-disconnected stuff to a young musician if they approached me. I probably have!
JORMA KAUKONEN (Hot Tuna, Jefferson Airplane)
I think the only advice I would have is what helped me. First of all, you’ve got to love what you’re doing. And obviously those young people who pick up an instrument love what they’re doing. I think that has to come first before any desire to be “a successful professional.” Because out of the people that play music, there are not that many that actually make it a profession, but there are many, many great players in the world. So I think just to love it, to be able to be un-self-conscious about your playing, to be able to be critical of yourself but not hyper-critical, have realistic expectations, and just look forward to sharing your music with other people.
HUBERT SUMLIN (R.I.P.; Howlin’ Wolf band)
I would tell them to listen to and learn from old people, like I did when I was coming up. I listened. Wolf was one of them. In that period, me and James Cotton grew up together. We didn’t talk that much about nothing more than music. But with Wolf, he was showing me the tricks of the trade, where everything is, about this deep blues. And I knew he was a blues man and I knew that he had to know because he had it in him. He had it in his soul.
So he used to tell me, “Son, I’m gonna tell it like it is.” He said “Look, I’m gonna show you something… I know you don’t know this stuff.” Little by little, I knew because I played this stuff.” And he said “you know who I’m gonna give it to?” I said “Me!” He said “Yeah and you know who showed me? Charlie Patton was the one who showed me.”
He’d get up to the road house where Charlie Patton was playing. It could hold about 10 people and it was set on cement blocks. He’d have to go close to the house but it was too small to go in (ED NOTE: Wolf was a huge guy). So he would come there and the people would be dancing and they would be about two feet from Charlie Patton. He said that he (Patton) missed his head by about four inches! And he said “man, I could FEEL it!” So he said that Charlie Patton got him by the hair and said “Young man, you’re ain’t gonna move. I’m gonna see to that! You’re too young to see me and you’re determined to be out here. Where you’re mom?” And Wolf said all he wanted to do was to show him what he was doing. He said that he did. He started playing “Saddle My Pony” and Wolf (later) recorded it. I mean, he (Wolf) showed me how to play it later on.
From then on, Wolf left me alone on the guitar and he put me in the front of the group. I was really thinking about nothing except but just the guitar. (laughs) I would be thinking about what he was saying about Charlie Patton. So that’s why I came up and I tell the youngsters that’s coming up. I know they heard the music from somewhere. They done heard these old numbers these old people made. But these young people keep coming around and I’ll be so grateful, lord have mercy. When I see them come to the band stand and grin with their mouth open… And I love what I’m doing and if they wanna do what I’m doing, you ain’t got nothing to do but to want it, to get it! You can do it!
You know, these blues are a thing that you ain’t gonna be surprised about because you know about it. Rock and roll and everything is the blues. It came from the blues, all of it. All of this rock stuff and even rap. This is why the blues is the hardest thing in the world to play, to some people, but not everybody. If you want it, it’s there but it’s hard. In anything you do, you better have some soul. You hear me? (laughs)
Well, I would say for one thing, practice, practice, practice and I don’t only mean the piano. I mean all good things. Practice, practice, practice. Believe in what you’re doing and believe in your ability to do it. Surround yourself with good people. Read positive articles on people in your field. And anything that appears the slightest bit negative, cast it aside before you go all the way through it. There’s nothing to accomplish with negativity. And be about what you are daily and I would even suggest to even make a note if not daily, then weekly on what are you doing toward whatever goal you think you might have.
I would think that whatever you’re going to present to others, make it your very best presentation and not leave it up to their own imagination that “I know that this is insufficient but I know that it’s an idea.” Try and make it, whatever you present, suitable for framing. The very best you can do.
And also, you have to have some trust because there’s a lot of mistrust. But if you really have integrity that comes across, good companies want to deal with you. So don’t be reluctant and mistrust things because you hear so many rumors. Trust is very important.
And keep a good attitude in your mind, in your presentation and in everything that you do. A good attitude helps to sell everything else.
CORIN TUCKER (Corin Tucker Band, Sleater-Kinney)
My advice to this person would be that… I think they should do a year of studying and mentoring and developing their music before they do anything else. And I say this because I think that having that experience in a place like Olympia, Washington was something that taught me so much about performing, about being a musician and about the work ethic and the self-discipline it takes to accomplish your goals over a longer period of time. I’ve read some other people’s biographies over the years and I think having that development time at the beginning of your career can be really important to work towards being a performer and really understanding what it is that you love and what you really desire to do.
So this is 14-point plan for this young person! (laughs) A young person needs to get a job to pay the bills. This young person needs to make a list of their mentors or their heroes, hopefully in the hypothetical scene that this person lives in, that play music often. So they’re going out to the cheap shows that they can afford but they’re going out every week and seeing these people perform over and over and over again. So the small shows, the small venues, the things that are happening… Not necessarily the flavor of the month but the performers that this person admires. They go and see them a lot and study what makes these peoples’ music interesting and what draws these peoples’ fans in and why you think they’re a good performer. What about their songwriting do you admire? What about their career do you admire? So they’re setting their mentors.
And usually I think that part of being a young person is that you can be a fan (laughs). You can hang out at these places and (say) “Oh my God! I love your work!!” That plays a lot better at 18 than it might in a couple of decades so take advantage of that and hang around. And get to know these people and… find out about them and just study them.
While this is happening, this young person needs to also start performing themselves. This means at somebody’s party that somebody’s having- you volunteer to play a couple of songs. You jump up on an open mike. You play coffee shops. You perform all the time that you can and you have to be ready to develop that thick skin where someone will come and tell you, “You know… I don’t think you really have that great of a voice” or “I don’t like your songs” or “you sound like so-and-so!” You’re going to get that and you’re going to have to develop a way to make it constructive in a way.
And while you’re sort of developing this thicker skin and you’re working on developing how to taking this criticism, my advice to this young person is (to) also develop a way to deal with stress that doesn’t involve overindulging in drugs and alcohol, because this is something that is going to come in handy if you do make it big five years down the road and you’re on some really big tour. If you’ve spent this year that I’m advising, of working on self-discipline, if you find a way to de-stress, to meditate and to focus for a big performance that doesn’t involve drugs and alcohol, that’s going to be a really good skill to have in your career. So that’s another tip.
So while you’re doing your year of study, here’s another assignment. You need to study the music business. You need to understand how it is that people, artists that you admire make enough money to live off of, whether it’s how much touring they do, how many records they sell or in this case…. I don’t know, downloads, whatever people do! (laughs) If they are doing commercials, if they have some other kind of publishing deal. You need to figure out how people these days make money and figure out what would be your strategy to do that and what you’re willing to do and not do within that context. Whether or not you’re willing to do a McDonald’s commercial- that’s something you should ask yourself.
OK, so while you’re doing this year of study and you’re playing every show you can do and you’re hanging out and you’re setting your mentors, you should also be developing your material and you should be developing your contacts. When you go to these shows over and over and over again, in this scene or whatever you’re in, you figure out who owns this place you’re going to, who owns the venue and then who books the venue. So you start to understand how people get these gigs you’re going to. You develop a friendship. You say “hey! I love this venue and who books the bands?” “Oh, this is Sherry… Sherry books the bands…” “Oh, Sherry, I love the bands you’re booking.” And you develop those contacts with people if possible. I know that sounds totally unrealistic in a city like New York (laughs) but in Olympia and even in a city like Austin, Texas, I think that developing those contacts is totally plausible.
So, ‘do this for a year’ is my advice. And then, go for it! (laughs) And so once you’ve done this year of studying and developing your material and you feel like you have an hour’s worth of material, whether it’s your own originals, some covers you’ve been playing… You’ve been busking in the street, playing coffee shops, doing whatever. Hopefully, you’ve gotten feedback and you’ve gotten some advice from people. And if you gotten some people interested in what you’re doing, hopefully that will start to lead to some bigger gigs. And then the next step is to tour. Ad nauseam! (laughs) So I guess that’s my plan.
MCCOY TYNER (John Coltrane quartet)
Search within yourself to find your own sound, your unique voice. Everyone has one, you just have to find it.
LOUDON WAINWRIGHT III
Go into real estate! Marine biology!
I’ve been technically in the music business or earning a living on the periphery of the music business for about 40-something years. The other question I’m often asked is, how has it changed? I don’t think it HAS changed very much.
What I did was I stopped listening to other people’s music. That’s just my own psychological, paranoid make-up that causes me to do that. The thing is, you have to be noticed, I guess. I think that’s probably still true. In my own case, I had to create a kind of presentation which was… everybody had long hair and was wearing bell bottom pants. So I wrote Brooks Brothers clothes and got a short haircut. It sounds kind of silly now but in a way… even if you’re good, you have to somehow be noticed, and I imagine that’s still true. So, work on your presentation, kids!
As far as the vagaries of the business goes, there’s so many pitfalls and there’s so many more people doing it than when I was starting out in the late ’60’s. Now, people make records in their houses- they don’t need recording studios or record companies. Do they?
Q: It depends how involved they want to get in the process- if they want to do promotion, production and such by themselves.
I’m still trying to think of pieces of advice. “Hang in there”? How about that? “Don’t give up” or… “Walk away from it!” (laughs) Everybody’s got their own personal… I don’t know if it’s karma or whatever, but they’ve got their own battles. Again, I can only talk about my situation. When I was starting out, male singer-songwriters with guitars… record companies were interested in signing them. I think that might have something to do with the fact that Bob Dylan was in retirement at that point- he was in Woodstock, he had the motorcycle accident. So the companies were looking for someone to fill that vacuum. So guys with guitars, James Taylor, John Prine and me and David Bromberg and Leo Kottke and Leon Redbone and Steve Goodman… we were getting record deals then but I’m sure it’s a completely different ball game now.
So I guess you have to figure out what’s going on and how you can separate yourself from the pack and get a good lawyer! (laughs)
MIKE WATT (Minutemen, fIREHOSE, Stooges)
I think the fundamental thing is trying to find your voice, no matter what you’re doing, whether it’s spiel or bass or painting or writing. I’d say for all kinds of artistic expression, you gotta try and find your own voice. All the things out there are tools and a lot of that’s common ground but you use them to define your persona, your character and that’s really important because that gives you perspective to share through arts. It’s not saying that you’re better than somebody but that you’re distinct. Everybody has an innate distinction and somehow you have to bring that through your artistic endeavor. That can be tough, especially when you’re learning- you emulate a lot of heroes and just people that are doing enough for you to copy. (laughs) But you can’t let that smother the thing that makes you yourself. And so, I think that’s always a struggle, even if you’ve been doing it for a long time, and to keep going as well as going inside and finding out what makes you yourself and put that part into the expression.
That’s not really much from a business perspective. Raymond (Pettibon) talks to me about craft versus art- it’s kind of different. I think I kind of know what he means. To be a sustainable musician? I was talking more about the marketplace of ideas. (laughs)
Actually I think it helps unless you’re an emulator, you just pick up on the number one song and just copy that and can be very successful. (laughs)
With the business, as far as that can become a sustainable endeavor, jam econo! I mean, we had to, there was no other way. But it was funny, at Columbia (Records), my product manager would want me to have talks with the younger bands because they were in that situation and there’s still a bottom line, and more maybe. But people would get oblivious to that, just ride on the rock rollercoaster. They didn’t have to worry about it but you always do. Jamming econo is getting by with what you got. I think you have to have perseverance. You have to believe in yourself and keep going, keep pushing.
It’s really hard to come up with some kind of formula. You look at all the experiences. I have people on my radio show to talk about music and how they started as a kid because I think everybody has their own road to get to where they are and it’s OK. I don’t think there is one way to do it. We came from the econo way and most people hated the scene, so we got kind of insular. So we came up with some strange things like dividing the world into gigs and flyers. (laughs) So I guess we were very pragmatic in some ways even though the music was pretty uncompromising. The music we did mainly for us and then it was kind of a voice for people. But our friends were doing the same thing so it didn’t seem TOO lonely of a thing. All of those people we toured with and gigged with, they’re all pretty uncompromising. We also worked at other jobs, doing other things to support ourselves. The DIY thing. You know, that goes back to Walt Whitman. He published “Leaves of Grass” himself and he did shit like write letters to newspapers under another name, (saying) ‘hey, you gotta check out this! I hear it’s really good!’ Thoreau wrote a good letter about it so he put it on the back cover of the next edition and Thoreau got all mad. We’re talking the late 1800’s. Somebody once told me that the only thing new is you finding out about it! (laughs)
So, as far as advice like that, I try to serve as an example… so why did you do that session ‘Game Show Lady’ (with Kelly Clarkson) if you’re being uncompromising like this? Actually, they let me try anything I wanted to when I went in there.
You gotta somehow hold on to your integrity but I think that’s tied in too with this finding your own voice. I think it helps everybody else too because, like I said, in that scene, the other cats were doing that and they gave us confidence to try too. So I don’t think it’s so self-centered in a way. There would have never been a “Double Nickels on the Dime” without a “Zen Arcade.” But we didn’t copy that. So you’re still in there with your peers but part of it is bringing something to the table. As a writer, you probably read a lot and absorb a lot but you can still write original pieces and I think it’s the same thing with the music stuff too. The first person thing- the thing that makes up your personality. We all have different experiences and stuff like that. And genetically too, if you look at the thumb print, there’s just differences. Somehow, you bring that out. It’s tough. There probably shouldn’t be an easy way to do it. It should probably be hard. Econo recording, music equipment, that can be solved and it’s more accessible but this other (aesthetic) struggle is always gonna be a tough one but I think it’s worth it.
Trying to find the inner voice. It isn’t easy but it’s worth it. It makes the whole fabric more rich. Harmony can be strange but dissonance is too, but it’s a chorus and we all join in together on this kind of thing. I just think you’re out there competing, so maybe that’s what sticks out, is the personality. Unless people are looking for puppets, then pursue the puppets and be the emulator! (laughs) The Xerox machine. There’s always some kind of negotiation of compromise but… (sighs) probably in the arts, it’s not like a bridge where it has to stand up. The abstract about our thing, you don’t have to try to truck over it. The situation is safer to go crazy, a little bit, or get wild. There’s no guarantee because that’s one of the areas where people can still pick what they like and maybe change their minds. All you can do is make it and put it out to there, which is good. You can’t make people like it. I guess you can trick ’em.
But your average guy getting into music… I don’t know. I think that’s kind of in the minority, people with those kinds of abilities. So you’re better off going with your own vision, whatever that is.
So I get asked this a lot and I think ‘how did someone like you do this?’ which I don’t think is a bad thing. D. Boon was into the inclusive, not the exclusive. He was ‘one band for every block.’ At the end of my gigs, I say ‘start your own band!’ And it’s kind of carrying on that populist notion.
PAUL WELLER (The Jam, Style Council)
I would say get yourself a good lawyer. I would say keep on keeping on. Don’t let too many people sway your opinion. And as much as you can, be strong of mind and be tenacious as much as you possibly can. And do what you feel is right, what you feel is in your heart. And I would also say ‘listen to as much music as you possibly can as well.’ In no particular order anyway!
SWAMP DOGG (aka Jerry Williams)
The first thing I would do is tell them to study as much as they can. Learn theory and all of the other little things that goes along with playing your instrument, which by way, I don’t. And I would tell ’em to start sitting in wherever they can sit in, with all types of musicians, whether they be jazz, rock, blues, funk. See if they can sit in. Go to clubs and so forth, until they develop their style, until they find out what they truly want to do. And after they discover that, then they should put some sort of aggregation together that fits in good with what they are doing and start going to clubs and playing until they can get discovered. That’s basically my advice.
(For the business side of things): I would tell them not to look to get rich quick. Don’t base what you’re doing, your business, on what Bon Jovi is doing. I’m just using Bon Jovi as a point of reference. But if you want to be in the music business, one thing for a fact is you’re going to get screwed, so get ready for it! You’re not ALWAYS going to get screwed but if you go to guys who can make you happen fast, these guys will screw you. But… they’ll get you to where you’ll want to go, so what price are you willing to pay? And after you get to where you want to go, then you can shake these people loose. I’m not saying ‘go with gangsters’ or ‘go with con men.’ I’m just saying… your everyday executive, when he sees that he’s going to be able to make an extra buck, then hey, he’ll fuck you. He might be one of the nicest guys in the world when he comes from behind the desk.
I would tell them to start their own publishing firm but learn about publishing – it’s more than just a fucking word. Learn what it does. Learn what you can do with it. And learn where the money comes from. Know where the money comes from.
And when they get ready to record for somebody… well, it depends on who they recording for. The first time around, the company’s gonna call the shots unless they have played and played and played around the country and build such a heavy name that the company wants them bad. But if not, they’re going to more than likely have to take the offer that’s on the table. Get a lawyer so you don’t get TOTALLY, totally fucked. That’s about what I would tell them on the business side.
BRIAN WILSON (The Beach Boys)
I would say ‘well look, if you’re going to write a song, write the song. Don’t write half of it and then quit.’ You know, ’cause a lot of people are lazy. They won’t finish what they start. Like someone will read part of a book and then lay the book down and not finish the book. Same with music. You know, if you start a song, write the whole song and then follow through with your vocal.